The first direct military confrontation between the US and Russia since Russia's war against Ukraine began has raised concerns of further escalation. According to the US military, an unmanned US military drone collided with a Russian fighter jet in international airspace over the Black Sea on Tuesday. Moscow and Washington then gave conflicting statements as to how the incident came about. Among other things, it is disputed whether the collision happened in international airspace. Washington is supporting Ukraine with weapons and reconnaissance, among other things.
What does the US government say about the incident?
The US military said two Russian fighter jets had carried out an intercept maneuver with an MQ-9 drone 75 nautical miles (around 139 kilometers) southwest of the Russian-held Crimean Peninsula. This was flown in international airspace over the Black Sea. One of the fighter jets hit the propeller of the US drone. After that, it was no longer manoeuvrable. US forces should therefore have taken them out of the sky and let them fall into the sea. The drone was completely lost in the crash.
Moscow contradicts the US representations
Russia's Defense Ministry denied any responsibility for the crash. "The Russian warplanes did not use any onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their home airport," said a statement distributed by the state agency TASS. Air Force Su-27 jets took off to identify an unknown intruder over the Black Sea. The on-board radio was switched off and the drone was heading for the Russian border, it said. During a sharp evasive maneuver, she rapidly lost height and fell.
The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, accused the United States of gathering intelligence "that will later be used by the Kiev regime to attack our armed forces and our territory."
At the beginning of the war in the Black Sea, Russia unilaterally defined new restricted zones and, according to its own statements, also informed the international community about this.
Why does this Russian intercept stand out?
Intercept maneuvers are not necessarily aimed at pushing an aircraft away or forcing it to land, but often serve to determine, for example through visual contact, whether a suspicious aircraft poses a threat. US National Security Council communications director John Kirby said such interceptions were not uncommon. However, this case stands out due to the unsafe and unprofessional approach of the Russian side.
The Washington Post wrote that such provocations could lead to "miscalculations and unintended escalations" between the two powers. The confrontation underscores the high risks of the conflict.
It is the first time Russian and US military planes have come into direct physical contact since Russia began invading Ukraine just over a year ago, according to CNN and other US media. The incident is likely to increase tensions between the two nations.
US National Security Council communications director John Kirby said the US government is considering releasing footage to help clarify the matter. Kirby warned that such inappropriate actions by Russian pilots could lead to "misjudgments" between the armed forces of both countries. Referring to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, he said: "We don't want this war to escalate beyond what it has already done to the Ukrainian people."
What do we know about the drone?
The MQ-9 drone is primarily used for reconnaissance, but can also perform precision strikes. It is controlled remotely. The Pentagon declined to provide more specifics as to what the drone's mission was and whether or not it was armed.
The Pentagon initially did not comment on a possible recovery of the aircraft. Kirby merely said that the United States had taken precautions to ensure that the drone did not fall into the wrong hands. According to US media, the United States has not had any warships in the Black Sea since the beginning of the war.